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Ingenuity
Inventing Ourselves. We've gotten really, really smart. Maybe that's our problem.

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 31, 1999; Page M11

We didn't know why an acorn turned into an oak tree, why an apple fell to the ground, why the planets wandered among the stars. We didn't know why children looked so much like their parents. We were certain that our lives were influenced by invisible entities. Goblins roamed the Earth. The wisest men on the planet tried to turn lead into gold, and searched for elixirs of immortality. We were a big-brained species, but our minds were crammed with nonsense. We were so clueless we didn't even realize it was the Dark Ages.

There were, of course, several great civilizations on Earth, including China, the Islamic world and the flourishing societies of what would someday be called the Americas, and in these places there were people who studied mathematics, who examined the night sky, who tried to peel away the layers of mystery from everyday life. But they worked in isolation. All information was local. It would not be until halfway through the millennium that the geographers of the world would begin to realize where, exactly, they were. Never mind the "why" of existence, they still had "where" problems.

Toward the edges of their maps they drew sea serpents.

What people did have, even a thousand years ago, was ingenuity. They had oodles of it. Somewhere along the way, human beings developed a knack for figuring things out. They asked big, bruising questions. They didn't have the power to find truth quickly, and indeed they did make some tremendous errors, some real whoppers. But over time they seemed to get things right more often than they got them wrong. This trend would have consequences.

Early in the millennium, a lot of learned folks turned to a dead Greek man for explanations. Aristotle had been forgotten in the dank backwater that was Europe, but the Arabs had kept his works alive, and in the 12th century he began to be rediscovered in the West. Aristotle understood everything. He had extravagant explanations spilling out of his pocket. He wrote about astronomy, politics, logic, physics, meteorology, zoology, theology, psychology, economics, ethics, rhetoric and poetics. He had so many brilliant ideas that history has forgiven him for being, technically speaking, wrong about everything. Aristotle became known in Europe as The Philosopher. He'd been dead more than 1,500 years and his influence was just now peaking.

Aristotle explained that an acorn becomes a tree because it is the nature of the acorn to become a tree. It made perfect sense! Things have natures, they follow rules, they are part of a system that can be known. Male animals lived longer than female animals because they were warmer, Aristotle declared. The Cosmos was a very neat two-tier system, with an upper sphere of heavenly bodies made out of "ether," moving in circles, and a lower sphere containing Earth and Air and Fire and Water, stuff whose nature it was to move up and down.

Then people gradually got the idea that they didn't have to take Aristotle's word for everything. They could do their own interrogations of reality, their own little experiments. No one called it "science" yet. They called it "natural philosophy." What they found is that, when you look closer, you discover peculiarities of nature, such as this very strange fact that Earth is not stationary but in fact is spinning, and indeed is hurtling through space, a satellite of the sun. The Earth moves! In circles!

People took another look at air, this invisible medium, and realized that it exerts a force, a pressure. A guy named von Guericke in 1654 placed two close-fitting brass domes together, so that they formed a sphere, and evacuated the air inside. He then attached each hemisphere to a team of horses. The two teams of horses pulled in opposite directions. They couldn't separate the hemispheres. Air was more powerful than it looked.

This process of figuring out the basic rules of the universe reached a zenith in the latter decades of the 1600s, the heyday of a reclusive, obsessive character named Isaac Newton. When not becoming the most famous scientist in England, Newton worked on alchemy. This was how it went with a lot of the early scientists -- they were supernaturalists in their off hours. Newton believed that there were secrets revealed by God to Noah. The Noachian secrets were then passed to Moses and Pythagoras, and then, eventually, to select individuals. Newton wanted to be one of those people. He was an upgrade from Aristotle: wrong only some of the time.

Newton discovered, among other things, that the planets were controlled by an attractive force centered in the sun. He also declared that an object in motion stays in motion until acted upon by a force, and that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The most radical assertion of all was that there were equations that described all these laws. It turned out that God was a mathematician! F = MA! F = G(mM/r2)! And the laws that governed the Earth appeared to govern everything in the universe. Newton unified the entire cosmos. You didn't need any of those old magical occult forces (even though gravity, with its action-at-a-distance, did have the distinctive odor of witchcraft).

To celebrate the arrival of science and reason and the Enlightenment, everyone built clocks and watches. They built the most amazing, beautiful, glittering timepieces loaded with gears, springs, escapements, pendulums and pinions. A guy named John Harrison perfected a chronometer that finally allowed sailors to figure out their longitude. The theologians meanwhile took the clock seriously as a metaphor for the entire universe. This was a clockwork cosmos, and God the ultimate watchmaker.

And people felt good. Voltaire declared that the 1700s were the century "when reason was perfected." People knew they'd been ingenious, and had discovered a world to their liking, a world where everything was predictable, orderly and simple.

Now then: Look around.

What do you see?

Machines everywhere. Electrical appliances. Computers. With a touch of a button you can make incredible things happen. You don't know how they happen. You don't really understand the technologies at all.

Technology has ceased to be human-scale. It has shrunk into the realm of the microscope. Everything is miniaturized and digitalized and literally inscrutable.

A half century ago you could hold cutting-edge technology in your hand, and inspect it, and fix it. You could putter with a broken radio, open it up, take out the tubes, and bring them to the "tube tester" at the corner drugstore. You could isolate the problem tube, and replace it. Everyone was a radio repairman.

But the world of tubes was replaced by transistors, an invention that won several physicists a Nobel Prize and plunged technology forever after into the realm of the invisible.

Even cars are now impossible for ordinary people to fix. Used to be every male teenager in America tinkered with his car in the driveway, then finally washed up when a woman's voice called out that dinner was served. That's all gone. Cars are full of microprocessors. Only specialists, with special instruments -- more computers! -- can fix them. Now every male teenager is in his room, on a personal computer, playing Doom.

Years ago you could see precisely how a mechanical clock worked. The parts formed a symphony of motion. You could see what made it tick.

But clocks don't tick anymore. They're black boxes. When a watch stops working you just throw it away. No human made the thing; no human is going to fix it.

We have come full circle. We are united with our brothers and sisters of the Dark Ages. We live in a world of magic.

Tinkering With Technology

For most of the millennium, scientists were people in robes who pondered great questions at elite universities. Technologists were different. They were amateurs: tradesmen, farmers. They invented things. Advances in technology were often inspired by hunger and thirst. Technology meant stuff like irrigation projects. This didn't require science, per se -- everyone already knew water flowed downhill.

People wanted power, in the literal sense. A community was often built around a mill, where water powered the turning of a great stone upon another that remained immobile. The tinkerers applied their brains to gouging different sorts of grooves in the millstone. You didn't have to be a scientist to understand friction.

At one point in the 17th century someone invented the dog-drum. It was a treadmill of sorts. A dog would run inside it, and the device would turn a spit with a piece of meat dangling over an open fire. No science necessary; you just needed a good dog.

Technology was particularly useful for killing people at a distance. You didn't have to be a scientist to understand that if you sent a cannonball into the side of a ship you could make it sink. People learned how to make stuff go boom.

Inventions extended the human hand. The printing press replaced the individual scholar hand-copying a manuscript. The pistol extended the reach of a broadsword. In textiles, machines like the horizontal frame loom and the spinning wheel functioned like hundreds of tiny fingers. The telescope and microscope changed the magnification of the human eye. The steam engine gave us muscles we never dreamed of. We learned new ways to speak -- the telegraph and the telephone.

Someone concocted a new form of visual memory, the photograph. In the early 1800s there was a device called the camera obscura, which rendered a faint image on a silver plate. A man named L.J.M. Daguerre wanted to find a way to make such images more intense, more true to life. One day he stuck a used camera plate into a drawer, thinking he'd clean it later. When he retrieved it, the old image was dramatically sharper. Something in the drawer had served as an intensifier. He finally found the culprit: a few globules of mercury from a broken thermometer. Mercury vapor was the key to the new technology. That's how these things went: Inventors needed a prepared mind and a few drops of luck.

The second half of the 19th century saw a mad scramble of inventions. Oil was found in Pennsylvania, suddenly obviating the need to sail all over the world to kill whales and extract the flammable sludge of their heads. As Alexander Graham Bell was inventing the telephone, Thomas Edison was perfecting the incandescent light bulb and figuring out how to banish the night. Some Germans in the 1880s made a carriage that didn't require a horse, only an internal chamber of fire.

An idea surfaced: that all this ingenuity, coupled with scientific Reason, indicated that the human race was undergoing something called Progress. People were now functioning as part of larger institutions, much greater in scale than the home, the farm, the village. Technology was no longer fighting immediate battles, combating hunger and cold. Now it was being applied to mass production on a scale not seen since the pharaoh Khufu built his pyramid 485 feet above the Egyptian desert.

Suddenly there were great factories throughout the nations of the West, and elaborate transportation networks -- bridges, railroads, steamships. The Industrial Revolution had begun. The human species proliferated, swarming the planet, turning it into our personal hive. Through the power of ingenuity we had bent the world to our needs. We knew so much.

The only thing we didn't know was where we were going. Instead of children becoming apprentices, they were put to work in factories and mines. The end of slavery did not end the virtual enslavement of much of mankind. Ours was largely a world of peasants, serfs, sharecroppers, and this new breed of factory hand. People looked around and watched their skies darken with the soot from smokestacks. They saw cities crammed with poorhouses and orphanages. They saw the mansions of tycoons in the distance, forever out of reach.

Maybe we hadn't figured out everything after all.

Things Get Stranger

It's hard to say exactly when the classical, deterministic, knowable universe was destroyed. That universe ran into trouble in the 19th century. Up to that point, science had constantly made the world more intelligible. Technology had made it more orderly.

Then, in 1895, the German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen discovered a new type of mysterious radiation that he called the X-ray. In England, J.J. Thomson discovered that the atom, by definition the smallest unit of matter, wasn't any such thing. There were particles inside atoms, far smaller. In France, Marie Curie found that some elements, like uranium, seemed to decay over time and become transformed into other elements, such as lead. It was a little bit like . . . alchemy.

And there were things that made no sense at all. Two guys named Michelson and Morley set up an elaborate experiment to detect the motion of the Earth through the "ether" that supposedly permeated the universe. They'd do this by measuring changes in the speed of light when beamed in the same direction as the Earth's motion and in the opposite direction. Surely the speed of light would be greater when coupled with the Earth's own velocity. But nature didn't cooperate. The speed of light seemed to be the same no matter what. Impossible!

Along came a young Swiss patent office clerk named Albert Einstein. He obliterated Newton's perfectly mechanical cosmos. He said there was no privileged frame of reference anywhere in the universe. There was no ether permeating space. There wasn't really anything there in space, no absolute medium. There wasn't even an absolute time. There was no such thing as simultaneity. You could never really know for sure "when" something happened. Forget the "where" problems, we now had serious "when" problems!

Einstein went so far as to show that matter and energy were variations of the same thing. One could be converted to the other. This would lead not so many years later to the invention of the atomic bomb.

Along came a new theory of "quantum mechanics," which the smartest people in the world still struggle to understand. It seems that nature, at the tiniest level, operates in discrete units, or quanta, that have the qualities both of particles and waves. Very mysterious.

By the time Werner Heisenberg came along and declared his Uncertainty Principle -- that you cannot with accuracy know simultaneously the position and the momentum of a particle -- everyone despaired, and threatened to quit this whole enterprise of human inquiry.

The universe had gotten weird.

Scientist as Villain

Ingenuity has an evil streak: That's a given of the contemporary world. After the industrialized slaughter of World War I, with millions of young people blown to bits and gassed to death in the trenches of Europe, no one could think of science and technology as morally neutral. The terror of our ingenuity was dramatized further in World War II, when people died not just by the millions but by the tens of millions. The war ended with a demonstration of the convergence of science and technology. Atomic physics had finally caught up with the ancient art of making things go boom.

Novelists favor scientists as villains. Bad guys have incredibly elaborate gizmos and gadgets and ray guns and death lasers. In Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" the human race becomes a cruel laboratory experiment; in George Orwell's "1984" there are monitors everywhere allowing Big Brother to watch his minions. In the typical science fiction novel of the post-World War II era, the book begins with the Earth as an irradiated wasteland.

James McLellan and Harold Dorn, in "Science and Technology in World History," write, "The ultimate outcome of industrialization is still not clear, and in the balance hangs the fate of humanity on planet Earth." Which basically means we're not sure if being wildly ingenious and successful and technological and industrious is really such a good thing.

Have we reached a point where we have become too smart for our own good?

Aristotle would say no. He would say that it is the nature of man to solve his problems, to advance his species. Perhaps Darwin would agree.

We do know this: Today there are more scientists on the planet than at any other time in human history. Their work is astonishing to behold. They are decoding the human genome. They cloned a sheep. Just the other day they announced that they'd invented grass that rarely needs to be mowed.

But the questions they face are now more daunting than any that have come before. It's getting harder to figure out the basic riddles of the universe. The deeper we look, the more baffled we are. A scary thought has popped into the minds of a number of people: That all the easy problems have already been solved. That from here on, there's nothing but tough slogging.

As our technology becomes more like magic, as everything and everyone becomes more specialized, it becomes nearly impossible to invent something new, or discover a fundamental new principle, simply by tinkering in the basement or wandering through a forest. The magic now has to be planned years in advance, budgeted in the millions or even billions of dollars. It's not human magic anymore.

Darwin developed the theory of natural selection by looking at finches in the Galapagos Islands, and by reading the work of Sir Thomas Malthus. Today you need more than a good book and a nice travel itinerary. The biggest question in biology today is probably the origin of life, about which the experts have only a few foggy notions (a single replicating cell? a garbage bag of oily stuff?). We've sliced and diced and prodded and scanned the human brain every which way from Sunday, but no one has a good theory as to how the meat manufactures a thought. There are a few psychoanalysts still running around, talking about the id and the superego and denying that they practice a medieval art. The brain for now is just another black box.

The biggest news in cosmology this year is that the expansion of the universe is accelerating for no apparent reason. It's completely mysterious. The theorists can't sleep at night. To make the equations work they have to insert a factor called the cosmological constant, a repulsive force within the vacuum of space, but no one knows what might cause such a force to exist.

It's just one of those . . . secret forces.

A Crash of Symbols

We were typing this article on an IBM PC in the newsroom of an enormous communications company in the late afternoon 16 days before Jan. 1, 2000. Suddenly, the computer froze. It remained frozen a long time, as did every other computer in the newsroom. It was a system-wide crash, a rare event, and ominous.

No one knew how long it would last.

Writers stayed at their stations, fiddled with their computer mice, tapped forlornly on useless keyboards. Everyone eyed the clocks nervously. Deadline was approaching.

Finally the machines blinked to life. Order was restored. When an explanation was sought from one of the techies, he said this:

"The spanning tree bridging protocol went into a loop for some reason."

Ah.

Goblins.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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